Richard Norris, 39, features on the cover of next month’s GQ magazine. If you don’t already know him, Norris – who blew off a chunk of his face, jaw and teeth in a gun accident when he was 22 – had a face transplant two years ago.
The remarkable 36-hour surgery – the face came from a 21-year-old – was not without risk. In fact, there was only a 50% chance he would survive. Two years later Norris is left with an undeniably more normal face, but as Jeanne Marie Laskas reveals in her excellent article, it has also left him with many, many problems, from the psychological to the necessity of ongoing surgery.
Because so little of Norris’s original face is left, rejection could mean death, so he takes drugs every day to ward off infection, only the risk will always be there – and not just from that quarter. He shouldn’t drink or smoke, but does both. He seems enthralled by the surgeon who gave him his new face, but his mother calls Norris a ‘lab rat’. And in a way he is, because he is a poster boy for what may become a new growth industry – face transplants.
Laskas’s article is revealing and disturbing, and highlights for me what are the less understood drawbacks of face transplants, in particular the psychological side effects.
Through my teenage years I hoped some miracle operation would transform my face. I had a rude awakening when I consulted my plastic surgeon at the age of 21 and discovered there was nothing major he could do – certainly not enough to make the suffering I’d endure worth the effort. So I went home, sank into a melancholic period where I couldn’t see any future, before eventually going through the motions in life and despairing of ever changing my face. Until I discovered that I could change how I felt about myself and my negative attitude about my face. From that day I stopped making excuses and got on with living instead of existing.
Isabelle Dinoire became the first face transplant back in 2005. Since then almost two dozen face transplants have been performed. Back in 2005 I was pretty unsurprised by the development; after all, there had been so many advances in medicine that face transplants seemed just the last frontier to me. Of course this is a transplant with a difference – a heart doesn’t physically change when it moves from one body to another – but a face does because it is being moved to a different skull and bones structure, so the appearance is not the same as the donor. However, from the recipient’s perspective, the main advantage is that the face is ‘normal’ – certainly a lot more normal than their old one. And the expectation is that the facially disfigured – or at least some of them, for not all will be suitable candidates – will feel more comfortable with their new face, and have the possibility of leading a more normal life.
For me, it’s not a realistic option. I’ve lived with this face through good and bad times, learned to loath it and eventually feel more comfortable in its peculiar shape. I’m reasonably happy at almost 61 years of age that it should accompany me through my remaining years. I’d hate to put myself through the agony of surgery, and the long road to recovery, plus the likelihood of daily medication to fight off rejection.
I would also be concerned at how I might react to this new me. Perhaps I might perceive myself to be not just different, but also superior and lose the run of myself. I’d find it strange to look in the mirror and not see my old self. I don’t think I could make that adjustment. And how would my wife feel? Who knows until you try? But, of course, that is to forget that what my wife, Trish, saw when she met me was a facially disfigured male who wasn’t very confident about himself – and she married me knowing that. My children have grown up knowing me as I am. I’m not sure they’d suddenly like to see this stranger. Perhaps they’d find me weird. Maybe I’d find myself weird. And what about my friends and those who know me?
Mostly, though, I’d have to ask would it make me feel better about myself? And the answer is no – it would probably make me a lot more uncomfortable. You see I like me the way I am now. If you had asked me that 40 years ago I would have given you a different answer, but that’s a world away now.
In her article Laskas notes the absence of psychological support for Norris, a strange omission given the trauma facially disfigured people experience. It also seems to have been absent before Norris agreed to the transplant. Surely that should be a major consideration for all face transplant recipients. And if it is not, it should be.
I’m glad face transplants have arrived, but just because you happen to be facially disfigured doesn’t mean you’re the ideal candidate. Maybe you’re not psychologically ready yet. Perhaps also, you don’t really need a new face but a different more positive attitude and a society that accepts you as a person and not someone with a facial difference.
The full GQ article is at